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Pipeline opponents committed to ‘long haul’ after judge puts off lawsuit decision for weeks

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Tribal veterans stand for a photo Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016, at the opposition site near suspended pipeline construction north of Cannon Ball, N.D.Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor2 / 2

NEAR CANNON BALL, N.D. – Opponents of the Dakota Access Pipeline say they’ll continue camping north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation after a federal judge said Wednesday it may take two weeks for a ruling on the tribe’s request for an injunction.

“We’re still in limbo,” said Dallas Goldtooth, an organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network.

Goldtooth, speaking from a bullhorn to tell campers the news relayed to him from the courtroom, said the judge may take until Sept. 9 to make a decision. The news was met with silence from the group until one protester called out “On to D.C.”

“This is very disappointing to say the least,” Goldtooth told reporters. “We had hoped that we would have a more final decision today.”

Chairman Dave Archambault II said in a phone interview before boarding a plane back to North Dakota late Wednesday that he was disappointed the judge didn’t rule in the tribe’s favor but called the delayed decision the next best outcome, “because it just shows that the judge wants to understand the facts and the arguments better.”

“It’s good because we know we got our chance to be heard in court. That’s what we’ve been looking for,” Archambault  said. “It’s a win for all tribes because it shows that we are important and our concerns should be addressed any time there is a major project going through or near our territories.”

Phyllis Young, a Standing Rock Sioux Tribe elder and landowner, said the self-described water protectors will “absolutely” stay on site until Sept. 9.

“People are committed to the long haul in this camp, to be here until this pipeline gets stopped,” Goldtooth said.

Standing Rock members oppose the river crossing, fearing a pipeline leak would contaminate their water supply and other sacred sites. The tribe is represented by the environmental law group Earthjustice in the lawsuit against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over permits issued for the $3.8 billion pipeline, which would cross the Missouri River a half-mile north of the reservation and be the largest oil pipeline from the Bakken oil fields, moving 450,000 barrels per day to Patoka, Ill.

Dakota Access did not immediately respond to an inquiry Wednesday about whether the company plans to resume construction near the protest site. The company previously said it would hold off on restarting construction near the river crossing until the Wednesday hearing.

“I hope that they would be considerate enough to say ‘We can hold off on this until the judge rules,’ ” Archambault said.

Authorities have been in constant conversation with the company, said Donnell Hushka, spokeswoman for the Morton County Sheriff’s Office.

“I think they're anxious to get back to work, however they realize there could be some issues if they would,” Hushka said.

Dakota Access temporarily stopped construction near the river crossing site last week as protests ramped up, leading to 29 arrests for trespassing or disorderly conduct.

Young said protest organizers will continue to push for removal of the traffic checkpoint on State Highway 1806 that restricts travel south of Mandan. A second checkpoint blocking traffic on Highway 1806 near Fort Rice earlier in the day was removed Wednesday afternoon.

Hushka said the checkpoint will remain in place and authorities are still assessing the impacts of the judge’s delayed decision.

“We weren’t really prepared for this event,” Hushka said of the lack of a ruling Wednesday.

While tribal leaders were attending the hearing in Washington, campers and tribal elders held a prayer ceremony, smoking peace pipes and releasing two eagles, said Johnelle Leingang, emergency response coordinator for Standing Rock.

After the ceremony, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe honor guard marched roughly a mile from the camp location to the construction site, posing for a photo with a “No DAPL” sign.

“I hope they deny this pipeline,” said Kevin Little Bear, a Standing Rock veteran.

Leingang said the tribe is prepared to support the campers, but a concern going forward is that nights will be getting colder.

“We’re going to pull our resources together and see if we can get more tents and blankets donated,” Leingang said.

Campers from near and far said they were ready to stick it out. Naelyn Pike, 17, a member of the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona, sat on the grass eating a piece of white cake after hearing the news and said she plans to “keep fighting” even as she misses the start of her senior year in high school.

“For me, this is more important,” said Pike, who arrived Sunday with a dozen others from the reservation.

Manaja Unjinca Hill, veterans service officer with Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said at his last count about 87 tribal nations had sent representation to the demonstration.

“It brought all the tribes together,” he said.

Organizers estimated the crowd to be 1,500 to 2,000 on Wednesday, noting that some had left because of the start of the school year.

Goldtooth said there should be an ongoing conversation about how the state has escalated its presence, including the highway checkpoint and overhead aircraft surveillance.

“It’s mental warfare and we can’t stand for that,” Goldtooth said.

Law enforcement officials met with tribal leaders and protest organizers Wednesday morning and had a "positive dialogue," Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said.

Even if Dakota Access had won an immediate and favorable ruling Wednesday, the company wouldn't have resumed construction until it got the go-ahead from law enforcement officials that it was safe to do so, Kirchmeier said.

Fargo and West Fargo police and deputies from Cass and Grand Forks counties are among at least 10 agencies assisting Morton County deputies. About 40 officers are working daily in the area “to make sure that everything is maintained,” Kirchmeier said, and his office estimated it’s costing about $100,000 a week in overtime pay and other costs. Gov. Jack Dalrymple issued an emergency declaration Friday making available additional state resources available.

“Obviously it’s a strain on my department and our manpower,” Kirchmeier said.

Mandan police said they received a report that a Burleigh County sheriff’s deputy who lives in Mandan observed a “possibly Native American” female whom he believed was using her phone to record video of his home Tuesday. When the deputy went outside to confront the person, she got back into her white Dodge Dart and drove away, police said.

While police said it’s unknown if the incident was related to any of the protests in the area, Kirchmeier said there have been reports of similar incidents.

“Obviously that raises our concerns over the whole situation,” he said.

Meanwhile, Young said the tribe has a filed a complaint with the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and the UN plans to send an observer on Tuesday to the camp.

Maxine Thunder Hawk, 40, sister-in-law to Archambault, had difficulty describing her emotions before the hearing, but afterward said she shared the sentiments of the camp.

“This is a way to drag everything out and wait for Native Americans to diminish, but there’s a lot of people willing to take a stand,” Thunder Hawk said. “It’s not what we were hoping for at all. We just keep on praying.”

The main protest camp sits on land owned by the Army Corps of Engineers, and protesters don’t have a permit to camp on it, corps spokeswoman Eileen Williamson said.

“We can issue tickets but we don’t have a law enforcement function, so if they were asked to move it would not be by the corps,” she said.

As for the lawsuit, Williamson said it’s corps policy not to comment on ongoing litigation.

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